Monday, 30 May 2011

Bestselling crime novelist Peter James provides great lesson in retaining attention

The launch this week of Peter James's latest crime novel 'Dead Man's Grip' reminds me what a fine example he provides of the principles of holding attention.

Rule 11 of the Rules of Magic states 'Attention is sustained by variation, which shortens mental time'.   When making any kind of presentation you want to take your audience on a journey that involves lots of twists and turns, so you're never quite sure what is coming up around the corner.  You need to avoid the 'long straight road' that will simply send them to sleep.

When explaining this is my training courses on Presentation Skills I point to television news programmes where they never go for more than a few minutes without saying something like: "Now, over to our political correspondent, outside No.10".  Often the correspondent could probably do the job just as well sitting next to the newsreader in the studio, but the different inflection in the newsreader's voice, the shift to a new location and a fresh face - together with the implication that he is closer to the action - all help to retain our attention. It's about movement and change and what the presenter needs to do is to carve their content into a series of chunks which are interlinked but have clearly defined starts and finishes.

I also like to mention my favourite crime novelist Peter James, who has had huge success in recent years with his series of Roy Grace crime novels.  One of the hallmarks of these books - and a marked difference from the horror novels on which he focused previously - is that he carves the text into many different chapters.  His latest - Dead Man's Grip has 113 and his previous - Dead Like You, which entered the bestsellers list at No.1 - ran a little longer, concluding at chapter 123.

The result is the most page-turning read you could possibly imagine.  You feel like you are racing through the book because you are continually coming to the end of a chapter; another is about to start, but it brings a great sense of pace. Now, clearly you can't guarantee success simply by carving your copy into thin slices;  James's prose obviously has a lot to do with that, but the master of retaining attention provides a great example of the benefits of basic movement and change.  Watch out for a high bestsellers entry for Dead Man's Grip next week!

1 comment:

  1. I'm a big Peter James fan too - but I'm ashamed to admit I hadn't realised about the multiple short chapters. Of course, now you mention it, it's obvious.
    I get irritated by the constant shifts in news programmes though, especially the habit of leaving the name till last "She's famous for this, lived in wherever, rode a why is NonentityX doing whatever today?"